REPORT BY WHITNEY MALLETT
PUBLISHED IN ISSUE 17
You can buy lots of things in Dubai that you can buy in other places around the world: Tim Hortons Timbits, Louis Vuitton backpacks, Samsung VR headsets. In the malls, the stores are the same as everywhere else and the bright skylights bathe the glass escalators in a familiar light. Only a few details suggest the regional flavor of total capitalism—signs for BVLGARI and DIESEL written in Arabic as well as English, kiosks with Oudh incenses and perfumes, Pepsi’s dominance over Coke. Even the novelty of indoor winter sports, like ice skating at Dubai Mall and downhill skiing at Mall of the Emirates, feel like stock examples of ersatz attractions, like the West Edmonton Mall’s waterpark or the Venetian Las Vegas’s indoor canal. It’s all the perfect kind of gleaming blasé for a bored housewife.
Sheikh Zayed Road, the city’s major artery, and the Dubai Metro, the above-ground rapid rail, run east to west, the spine of a metropolis marked by vertical heights and linear planning. The train stations rise from the freeway like golden cockroaches, and while you must briefly weather the desert heat between the metro and the more middle-class malls, “metro links” offer seamless air-conditioned portals to the nicer malls in the form of glass walkways several meters above street level. These pedestrian perches present aerial views of workers napping underneath palm tree-shaped shadows while the mall atrium balconies grant a similar perspective of the people below, wealthy Emirati shoppers in floor-length abayas and business-clad developer reps hovering next to models of soon-to-be-built luxury condos. The already-built high-rises offer the most extreme version of this God’s-eye-view, ideal for the woman who wants to look down at the people around her. From a balcony 30 stories in the air, the people on pool decks and in parking lots below appear just as the Lilliputian figurines that decorate the developer’s 1:200 scale models, toys in the image of buildings from which the world will one day look like a toy.
Luxury shopping malls are just one aspect of the post-national vision of global capitalism Dubai exemplifies. Foundational to the city’s development is the concept of the “free-trade zone,” a circumscribed area unrestricted by the greater region’s regulations, like duties, taxes, and labor laws, and designed to promote the unfettered flow of capital. Promising to jumpstart economics in the developing world, these zones proliferated in the 1970s, and as they continue to spread across the globe, they persist in evolving and mutating, breeding with other new urban forms— Dubai Internet City, which opened in 2000, for example, combines the IT park with the free-trade zone. Dubai today is an aggregate of zones—Dubai Silicon Oasis, Dubai Knowledge Village, Dubai Techno Park—which each have their own set of rules, incentivizing industries to develop in specific locales and encouraging international investment. This model of urbanism is more concerned with the global than the national, which, according to Keller Easterling, suits Dubai more than the 20th-century concept of the nation state. In Extrastatecraft, she writes, “For Dubai—an ancient entrepôt of trading and smuggling recently reawakened by oil—the zone may have seemed remarkably familiar while nationhood may have seemed a bit like a quaint custom necessary to join a global club.”
While there is no delineated shopping zone in Dubai, you can exchange local currency for consumer goods nearly anywhere. Here are a few suggestions:
IBN BATTUTA $$
This mall is named after a medieval Moroccan traveller, basically a backpacker who literally walked across the world and then returned home to Tangiers to write the Eat, Pray, Love of his generation. Anointed the largest “themed” mall in the world, in between discount department stores and sporting good retailers, as well as shops like Aldo and Sephora, kitschy décor suggests the different regions Battuta visited, from China to Andalusia. In one food court, there’s a life-sized model of a man sitting on an elephant, the animal supporting a towering mechanical clock on its back, a working reproduction of a 13th-century invention referencing Indian, Chinese, and Islamic culture. The generic multiculturalism and uncanny manikin of the figurine remind one of the It’s a Small World ride in Disney World.
MALL OF THE EMIRATES $$$$
Upon entering the mall via the Metrolink, there is a small sign noting opening hours, free wifi, and dress code specifications. The posting asks visitors to “please wear conservative clothing” and recommends “avoiding showing your shoulders and knees.” While I had these body parts covered, several inches of my bare midriff was showing and I managed to avoid any scolding from mall staff. This is by the far the nicest mall I visited in Dubai, with the most high-end stores and natural light. However, while the concourses between the shops are bathed in sunlight, the indoor ski resort and snow park is artificially lit and very dark. There are supposedly penguins but you can’t really see much of the winter wonderland unless you pay admission, and judging from the portion visible to the general mall public, the lighting is so dim that any pics for Instagram would be underexposed and so not worth the ticket price.
DUBAI MALL $$$
The Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world according to total area and the 19th largest by gross leasable area. It’s also right next to the 163-floor Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest skyscraper. Bigger can be better but it can also be more exhausting. If you’re arriving at the mall via the metro, expect to have to travel down the 820-meter skywalk, the longest of its kind, connecting the train to the shops. Perhaps tuckered out from this trek, I spotted several people napping in the concourse seating areas. This mall also boasts a movie theater, an indoor skating rink, and the UAE’s largest bookstore, a 68,000-square-foot Kinokuniya, the only Middle East location of the international Tokyo-based chain.
DUBAI DESIGN DISTRICT $$$$
Like many things in the city, the Dubai Design District, nicknamed d3, is a work-in-progress. Only the first of three phases have yet to be completed and the waterfront is littered with cranes and fences printed with developer’s advertisements and smiling stock photos, but already the shiny retail spaces are being filled with pop-ups specializing in nebulous “brand activation” and royalty-directed humanitarian initiatives hawking five-figure handmade rugs. There’s a Harper’s Bazaar Cafe, “a living embodiment of the iconic fashion magazine” and hyper-designed swings for grown-ups that I saw no “influencers” swing in.
AL SATWA $
Much of Dubai seems futuristic and clinical, but Al Satwa, a high-density community of retail outlets and residential housing, feels a brief reprieve from this sterile vision of glass and steel. Here, instead of towering mirrored high-rises, fourth-floor balconies are crammed with colorful clothes hanging out to dry and signs announce “Bird’s World,” “Mutton Parts,” “Melon Jam,” “New Fashion,” “Classic City.” I saw red faux fur car upholstery and Angry Birds backpacks, rose plants and pet parakeets, a ladies salon spelled “saloon” and a tank top made in China printed with the word “Devils” atop an American flag eagle decal. Most prices seemed negotiable.
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